In Search for Values, China Casts Its New Heros as Art

Chinese Red Army troops that are deployed alongside trenches in central Beijing seem frozen in motion, poised to do battle.

The soldiers will never fire a gun, launch a missile, or repel an attack, but they are still part of an ongoing public-relations campaign aimed at fanning the flames of Chinese nationalism.

Sculptors at the Central Academy of Art, creators of the clay warriors, have been enlisted in the Communist Party's efforts to safeguard its future by memorializing its past.

The larger-than-life communist troops "are part of a socialist-realist art movement that has been resurrected from the 1950s to serve the 1990s," says one sculptor, who asked not to be identified. "These revolutionary heroes will join a range of exhibits to celebrate the return of Hong Kong and the rebirth of national pride."

The return of Hong Kong on July 1 ends 150 years of British colonial rule. State-run TV, newspapers, and magazines are heralding the event, calling it the opening of a "new Chinese century."

The party gained prestige, popularity, and power in the first half of this century in part by expelling Japanese, British, and French imperialist forces from Chinese soil, and now is trying to restore its image as the savior of the nation.

That image was shattered in the spring of 1989, when the party leadership called out heavily armed troops and tanks to retake Tiananmen Square from students and other pro-democracy protesters.

One of the first targets of the June 4 attack was the Goddess of Democracy, the sculpture erected by students at the center of the square that had perhaps one of the shortest life spans in the annals of world art. The statue, which briefly faced a huge portrait of Mao Zedong, was crushed by tanks as they entered Tiananmen, and its broken body was later burned by martial law troops who occupied the square.

"The party is trying to get beyond Tiananmen by appealing to the collective pride felt in China's growing strength and prosperity, and its rise on the world stage," says one of the former art students who helped craft the goddess, which was fashioned after the Statue of Liberty in New York. "It's a wise move because probably every Chinese, regardless of political outlook, wants to contribute to a rejuvenated Chinese civilization."

Not only party leaders, but also scholars and artists, have begun exploring their roots in history as China prepares to enter the 21st century.

Li Shouren, one of the Central Academy of Art's better-known sculptors, finds his models among the scientists, nationalists, and reformists who over the last 100 years have helped guide China toward modernization.

Included in Mr. Li's recent sculptures are:

* Kang Youwei, a Confucian scholar who 99 years ago called for constitutional limits on imperial power, and escaped a death warrant issued by Chinese Empress Cixi only by fleeing.

* Yang Hucheng, a nationalist who once kidnapped Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek to persuade him to join a united front with the Red Army against Japanese invaders. Chiang imprisoned Yang for a decade before executing him.

* Qian Xuesen, a rocket scientist who left a teaching post at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, in the 1950s to help establish China's space program.

Li says that despite the current resurgence of revolutionary realism, "Chinese artists have more freedom to explore now than at any time in decades."

Li's life in many ways mirrors the changes that have swept over the Chinese arts since the 1949 Communist revolution.

When he entered the Central Academy of Art in the 1950s, he says, "Soviet thinking, art, and technology flooded into and pervaded China."

"Art was considered part and parcel of state propaganda," says Li, and artists were required to produce works according to government plans set out by cultural commissars.

During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao called on millions of young Red Guards to prepare the way for a pure communist society by wiping out traces of traditional Chinese and Western learning, religion, and art.

Countless ancient Chinese ink paintings, calligraphic scrolls, and Buddhist figures in bronze or clay were confiscated by marauding bands of Mao's storm troopers, and their owners beaten or imprisoned.

On the ruins of the destruction, "identical statues of Mao were placed in every Chinese city, and his portrait stood guard over every workplace and every school," says Anne Thurston, co-author of "The Private Life of Chairman Mao." "Centuries of emperor worship laid the groundwork for Mao's cult - he was the new emperor."

Li says although he joined the nationwide drive to clone Mao in stone, he was detained by Red Guards as his school was closed down in 1966.

Like many fellow teachers, he spent much of the next decade cleaning toilets and performing other acts of penitence for his "bourgeois" views on art.

Mao's death in 1976 marked the end of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of a great debate over China's troubled past and alternative visions of its future.

"The party began taking down most of Mao's statues, under cover of the night," says Ms. Thurston. "But that process stopped in 1989, and since then it seems the whole country has been searching for new values and heroes."

Despite a ban on open calls for political reform since 1989, the party's reforms have unleashed a blossoming in the arts.

Mao himself is now the central motif in irreverent Chinese political pop art, and China's growing class of nouveau riche is creating a market for works produced outside of the state system.

Li says China's economic reforms and growing sphere of freedoms for its artists could combine to produce a cultural renaissance.

"For centuries, China had one of the most advanced civilizations and art centers in the world," says Li. "Chinese artists are proud of their tradition, and many are eager to recapture the spirit of those times."

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